“You consider yourself very fortunate to play in this era.” – John Isner, former world No. 8.
“We definitely played better because of one another.” – Roger Federer, on archrivals Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Just as boldly as he strikes the ball in tiebreakers and on match points, Novak Djokovic often proclaims his ambition: “I am looking to make history in this sport.”
In an epic Wimbledon final against Roger Federer, the Serb with verve not only made history but created memories that will last decades. To capture his fifth Wimbledon and 16th Grand Slam title, Djokovic had to win three tiebreakers. The most memorable was the new 12-point tiebreaker in the deciding set, introduced this year to prevent marathon matches. Fittingly, it was the first 12-point tiebreaker of the 254 singles contests, and it climaxed the last and most dramatic match.
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Much like Federer’s classic 2008 Wimbledon final against Rafael Nadal — often called the greatest match ever played — this epic also featured unpredictable fluctuations and riveting shot-making. As the scored mounted to 7-7 in the fifth set, Centre Court spectators and hundreds of millions of worldwide TV watchers wondered which superstar would bravely seize the initiative and whether it would take the newfangled tiebreaker to determine the champion.
Down break point at 7-8, 30-40, Djokovic stroked an approach to Federer’s much stronger forehand wing. Like a cobra pouncing on prey, Federer surged to the ball and cracked a cross-court passing shot winner. With an 8-7 lead, the odds favoured Federer to close out the final for his ninth Big W title. But Djokovic could summon confidence from the 2010 and 2011 US Open semifinals when each time he escaped two match points and eventually prevailed.
In the Player’s Box, Federer’s wife Mirka, a former tour player herself, covered her face with her hands. She couldn’t take the tension any more. But there would be lots more tension for the players and their teams. The majority of the crowd was boisterously pro-Federer, but Djokovic has dealt well with that for the past decade, as the third fiddle in the superstar triumvirate.
Defeat stared Djokovic in the face when Federer smacked two aces to surge ahead 40-15. Double championship point for Federer. An aggressive serve return forced Federer to miss a forehand. One championship point saved by Djokovic. If Djokovic didn’t win the next point, Federer, not Djokovic, would make history. Once again, Djokovic didn’t blink. He belted a laser-like forehand passing shot winner. Djokovic escaped again. At deuce, Federer erred on the next two points.
After more than four hours, the match was all even again, eight-all. “How much stress can we all take?” quipped John McEnroe, the ESPN analyst and former star.
When the score reached 11-all, a 12-point tiebreaker between these dead-even warriors seemed almost inevitable. Not so fast! Djokovic streaked to a 40-love lead on his serve, only to have Federer grab the next four points, the last when his forehand winner barely clipped the sideline. The sports cliché, “It’s a game of inches,” should be changed to “It’s a game of millimetres,” because these tennis artists of precision often painted the lines with shots, even when the pressure was greatest.
Djokovic escaped from 30-40 break point, but barely, as Federer’s backhand cross-court passing shot landed a half inch outside the sideline. Federer partisans “aaaaaawed” in disappointment. Federer had another break point chance, but, after both players scrambled to gain the edge, Djokovic finally put away an easy overhead. Two points later, Djokovic held serve. Federer then routinely held serve, finishing with an ace, for 12-12.
Tiebreaker time. As three-time Wimbledon champion McEnroe said, “It’s not a question of whether you have nerves. It’s how well you handle them.”
Djokovic enjoyed the edge here — in this match, in their 47-match rivalry, and in their careers. The killer statistic for Federer, the sport’s GOAT, was that he had lost an astounding 21 matches after holding one or more match points, including five Grand Slam matches. Usually, his vulnerable backhand broke down under the pressure of the moment or under the pressure of an opponent’s withering attack. This time the Mighty Fed had to deal with both pressures.
“Djokovic just has to play his normal game, but Federer has to play high-risk tennis, which is tougher in a tiebreaker,” pointed out ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe, after Federer’s dazzling forehand winner landed on the sideline to even the tiebreaker at one-all.
Federer then served and volleyed. Very high-risk against the best serve returner in tennis history. The questionable tactic backfired as Federer mishit a half-volley in the alley. Controlled aggression paid off for Djokovic and gave him a 4-1 lead. Fed closed it to 4-3. But Djokovic punished a short serve return with a forehand winner for 5-3. Then a sharp backhand-to-backhand cross-court duel epitomised the Serb’s ground-stroke superiority. He patiently waited for an opening and then pulled the trigger for a backhand down-the-line winner.
Championship point! Ironically, considering the extremely high level of the final, it ended when Federer shanked a forehand.
After four hours and 47 minutes of extraordinary and engrossing tennis by two living legends, Djokovic emerged victorious by the eye-catching score of 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3).
Federer lost the marathon match despite hitting 40 more winners (94 to 54) and 14 more total points (218 to 204). Thanks to the beauty of the tennis scoring system, some points count far more than others. As Djokovic put it, “I managed to play my best tennis when it mattered most.”
Djokovic’s victory celebration was less exuberant than usual, perhaps because he’s 32 and highly respects his valiant adversary. He didn’t rip off his shirt or even collapse on the soft grass. But he did pound his chest a few times and point his forefinger towards the sky. And, of course, to honour the only major on grass, he ritually plucked a few blades and chewed them.
To reach the final, No. 2 Federer overcame far more difficult opponents than No. 1 Djokovic. Federer was awarded the seed based on Wimbledon’s controversial grass-ranking formula, which miffed Nadal, and took on No. 3 Nadal, No. 8 Kei Nishikori, No. 17 Matteo Berrettini and No. 27 Lucas Pouille, dropping only three sets. On the other half of the draw, Djokovic didn’t face a top-20 opponent, the highest-ranked being No. 21 David Goffin and No. 23 Roberto Bautista-Agut.
Tickets sold for up to $19,400 for the ballyhooed Federer-Nadal semifinal. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to the hype because Federer is a peerless magician and tactician on grass, while Nadal, a winner of only two Wimbledons, can transfer only so much of his matchless clay-court game to grass. The telling statistic: Nadal’s forehand bounces an average height of 4’2” on clay, but a much-lower 3’7” on grass. As a result, the vicious Nadal forehand topspin troubles Federer much less on grass.
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Using his versatility, including a nasty slice backhand and surprise serving and volleying, Federer snatched the last five points to win the opening set 7-3 tiebreaker, their first in five-and-a-half years. After a mystifyingly inept 6-1 second set, which John McEnroe called “absolutely the worst set we’ve ever seen Federer play,” the Swiss maestro promptly regained his form to grab the third set 6-3.
When the seemingly ageless Federer pulled ahead 5-3 in the fourth set, McEnroe marvelled, “I can’t believe Federer is performing and moving at this level at almost 38.”
Nadal, a supreme fighter, staved off two match points and fired an ace to hold serve for 5-4. Then, still energetic, he ran to his chair for the changeover. With Federer serving for the match, Nadal escaped two more match points, the second on a brilliant backhand passing shot. On his fifth match point, a Nadal backhand sailed beyond the baseline to give Federer a 7-6 (5), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 triumph. The fired-up Centre Court crowd gave both warriors a rousing standing ovation.
Djokovic confronted a considerably easier semifinal challenge against Bautista-Agut, a 31-year-old Spaniard who had never advanced past the fourth round at Wimbledon. RBA, who had upset Djokovic twice on hard courts this year, had to postpone his bachelor party because of his unexpected Wimbledon run. So he invited his six buddies, along with his fiancée in the Player’s Box, to watch him play the biggest match of his career. RBA put up a spirited battle before Novak’s superior power and athleticism produced a 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory.
Djokovic grew up in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s when NATO bombs fell near his home in Belgrade. He managed to sneak out to practise tennis in safe areas, after figuring out where the bombs would likely land each day. Tennis was his salvation, and after defeating RBA, he said, “[Winning] Wimbledon has been my dream ever since I was a child. I used to make the trophies out of different materials in my room.”
Even in his wildest dreams, little Novak could not have imagined that he would someday win five Wimbledons and slay the greatest player of all time in three finals.
After this sensational Wimbledon final, a disappointed but gracious Federer told the crowd, “It was a great match. It was long. It had everything. I had my chances. So did he. I thought we played some great tennis. In a way, I’m very happy with my performance, as well. But Novak, it’s great. Congratulations, man. That was crazy. Well done.”
When asked if this was the greatest match he ever played in, Djokovic said, “If not the most exciting and thrilling final of my career, in the top two or three and against the greatest player of all time. Unfortunately in this kind of match, one of the players has to lose. We both had our chances. It’s quite unreal to be two match points down and come back — and a bit strange to play the tie-break at 12-all. Roger said he hopes it gives other people hope they can do this at 37. I’m one of them.”
At 32, the youngest and hottest of the reigning Big 3 that have won 51 of the last 59 Grand Slam events, Djokovic has now seized four of the last five. With 16 majors, he edged closer to Nadal at 18 and Federer at 20. The next two majors are on hard courts, Djokovic’s best surface, at the US and Australian Opens. Buckle your seat belts. Expect more “popcorn matches.” The race to make history as the GOAT appears far from over.